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Luthier School: Should You Go?

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Date: April 17, 2019

Reads: 7,411


Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He is the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.
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Most people don’t even know what a Luthier is. I’m guessing you do because you’re here.

But did you know there are still Luthier schools around? Did you also know they’re often called “lutherie schools”?

My point is, there’s so much unknown about being a Luthier, getting a Luthier’s education, and what type of salary you can expect as a Luthier.

Because of all these unknowns, I’ve put together a guide on what you can expect to learn at Luthier school and what to expect after you graduate.

Should you go to Luthier school? Let’s take a look at:

  • The best way to become a Luthier
  • The classes you’ll take
  • What you’ll learn in a basic physics and design guitar making course
  • How much does Luthier school cost?
  • What to expect when you graduate
  • Is Luthier school right for you?

The Best Way to Become a Luthier

People looking to become Luthiers (aka Guitar Makers) typically start out as Apprentices or Assistants to a professional Luthier. This way, they get hands-on experience, which is important in such a hands-on profession. Plus, you learn to make guitars that you can then play once they’re done.

Most Luthiers also go through some sort of higher education or online course. Matt Rubendall, a professional Luthier, went to a six-week lutherie school. There, he says, they trained people to work in the big guitar-making factories, like Martin or Taylor.

But he says nowadays, people prefer to spend much more time learning and getting educated to either work for a small guitar shop, start their own Luthier business, or just do it on the side.

The Classes You’ll Take

The classes at lutherie school vary, just like any continuing education in the music industry. You can select the courses that interest you most and build your own set of skills.

Some examples of classes you may take include:

  • Acoustic guitar making
  • Electric guitar making
  • Bass guitar making
  • Contemporary guitar making
  • Setup, maintenance & basic repair
  • Fresh polishing
  • Fretwork
  • Guitar design

Obviously, these are just the general classes and concepts that are typically available. Once you start the coursework, you’ll realize there’s a world of knowledge within each of these.

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What You’ll Learn in a Basic Physics and Design Guitar Making Course

Just to give you an example, let’s go through what you’ll learn in a basic Luthier course. This would be a 101-level class. An introductory lesson, you could say.

The physics of the stringing system:

Here you’ll learn about how to correctly set up the strings, bridge, and guitar top. You’ll need to know how the whole stringing system works, what string energy is, and how the top converts string energy into audible sounds.

Intro to the main components

Once you know the physics of how a guitar works, you’ll learn about the main components of the guitar. You’ll learn how to use these components to shape the tone and refine the responsiveness of the guitar.

Tone and intonation

You’ll learn about using the proper scale length (the distance between the nut and the saddle). This is super important in controlling the tones of the final finished guitar. You’ll also get educated on other aspects related to tone and intonation.

Nut and saddle:

The nut and saddle are big factors in the tone of your guitar and its design, especially when it comes to choosing the materials to use.

Guitar bridges

There’s so much to learn about the guitar bridge that you can spend an entire section of a class on it. You’ll learn how to use the bridge’s full potential to make the guitar more playable and the tone more beautiful.

Neck geometry

The shape of the neck is one of the most important things that determine the playability and intonation of a guitar. And you’ll need to understand the neck’s geometry and materials.

Problem-solving

If you want to be a successful Luthier, you have to develop good problem-solving skills. You’ll have to find and diagnose problems and also be able to face unexpected issues as they arise.

Measurements and data collection

Being able to collect, measure, and analyze data on your guitars will allow you to get better at making more advanced designs.

Bridge height and neck relief

Knowing the relationship between bridge height and neck relief is another crucial piece of knowledge to have if you want to be a good Luthier. Knowing this allows you to make the most effective adjustments to get the best playability.

Fretwork and neck design

What is it that makes a guitar NOT as playable as it could be? Knowing the answer to this question (or knowing how to find the answer) is something else you’ll need to know.

How Much Does Luthier School Cost?

If you want to go to an actual Luthier school and take a comprehensive course, tuition could cost you between $15,000 to $20,000, not including the $1,000 or so you’d spend on tools.

You can also go the online course route if you’re looking to save money. There are actually lots of online courses created and curated by professional Luthiers.

The cheapest way to learn is by reading books and watching videos online. Just to be real, this is probably the least desirable way. However, it is possible to pull this off if you follow it up with an apprenticeship at a local guitar shop.

What To Expect When You Graduate

After earning an education as a Luthier, you’ll most likely want to find an experienced professional who will let you be their Apprentice. From there, you can continue working for a mom-and-pop guitar shop, work for a big-name guitar-making company (like Martin or Taylor), or you could even start your own business.

If you venture out on your own, you’ll probably need to make custom guitars (Rubendall hand makes 6-10 guitars a year) and also do a lot of restorations and repairs. And you’ll most likely need to sell guitars both in-person and online.

Whatever path you choose, you must do it because you love it, not because of the money.

“It’s a profession where there’s hardly any money in it and people are doing it because they love it,” Rubendall says.

But he says this creates a Luthier community that’s super tight-knit, whether it’s a beginner looking to learn more or fellow experts helping each other out.

“If some kid wants to come in, I will show him every single thing I do,” he says. “That’s what’s great about Instrument Makers, I think. A lot of them are really eager to help people and offer advice.”

He goes on to say this isn’t a skill you just pick up. It’s not something you should just Google once and feel like you’ve got it down. It’s a craft that takes a lot of TLC.

“I think people are looking for a quick fix, the internet way of ‘I can learn this — there must be a step A-Z [tutorial],’” he says. “But that’s not the case.”

Is Lutherie School Right for You?

Because a Luthier’s salary can be as little as $15,000 (the average is $52,000 a year), it can be tough for some people to justify paying for Luthier school. However, consider how inexpensive an education in lutherie is compared to your typical college education.

So if you love working with guitars, going to lutherie school may be a great choice for you.

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FAQ

Community Question

How much does a Luthier make in a year?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Luthiers make about $39,800 annually. The general salary range runs from $23,600 to $60,100.

The BLS groups Luthiers in with other musical instrument professionals such as Instrument Repair Specialists and Piano Tuners.

Community Question

How do I become a Luthier?

Through training. Attend a Luthier school and get a degree or certificate. You can also apprentice with a more experienced Luthier in their workshop. You’ll learn how to repair, design, and craft instruments.

You should have skills in woodworking, design, and performance. You don’t have to be a concert-level violinist or virtuoso guitarist but you should know how your instrument of choice works.

Community Question

What is a Master Luthier?

A Master Luthier is an instrument maker who has dedicated an extraordinary amount of time and effort into refining their skills and has built a reputation for making custom guitars and violins with exceptional quality or beauty.

Basically, if a violin or guitar aficionado would recognize the name of the person who made your instrument, that person could most likely be considered a Master Luthier.

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